Design/Build v. Architect

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    Here is a topic I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on. We are getting ready to renovate a Cobble Hill brownstone that hasn’t been touched in a while. We have interviewed a few architects. Mostly, these architects all say their services will cost 20% of the job. I have also started talking to a few design/build firms. For those of you not familiar with this breed, they are a construction company with an in-house designer. The theory is that you will save money on the design aspect by cutting out the 20% architect. Most of the firms seem to have an architect on contract who will stamp the plans. The big disadvantage seems to be that you won’t be able to do a construction bid process…On the other hand, saving that 20% architect (or even 10%, given that you will pay the designer of the firm something) could be pretty damn sweet. My gut is to go with the design/build because I would rather see my money go into the pockets of the laborers who are working their asses off…Would love to hear what people think.

    23 Replies

    1. Ditto to the post above…

      As a retired Architect now in international community development, I must say that the difference between a house that keeps a high market value and one that benefits from houses that keep a high market value is the work of the Architect. Sad to say, some people benefit from houses on their blocks that have been done by architects who have done a good job and have been adequately compensated.

      20% of course is too much. An agreed 10% gives both parties full confidence that the final result must be a susccesful project.

      Somehow for the past 20 years we have devalued the benefit that architects bring to any project. Housing in Manhattan keep their value not only because of location but also because most buyers know that professionals are involved who have been trained and bring their best talents to the market.

      The old adage … You get what you pay for…

      myrnett@gmail.com

    2. Ditto to the post above…

      As a retired Architect now in international community development, I must say that the difference between a house that keeps a high market value and one that benefits from houses that keep a high market value is the work of the Architect. Sad to say, some people benefit from houses on their blocks that have been done by architects who have done a good job and have been adequately compensated.

      20% of course is too much. An agreed 10% gives both parties full confidence that the final result must be a susccesful project.

      Somehow for the past 20 years we have devalued the benefit that architects bring to any project. Housing in Manhattan keep their value not only because of location but also because most buyers know that professionals are involved who have been trained and bring their best talents to the market.

      The old adage … You get what you pay for…

      myrnett@gmail.com

    3. Do not go with a Contractor (and cut out the Architect) who has an in-house designer or someone to stamp plans. There is a conflict of interest between the two. My very first job as and Architect/Designer (about 10 yrs ago), I worked for a GC who did these type of renovations. He cut corners with construction, used cheaper-end materials, did not spend the proper amount of time on design, there were also many change orders when clients wanted to use higher-end materials and he found ways to hide costs in his contract because the clients did not know enough about construction costs to question. You will not save any money by cutting out the Architect.

      Architects take pride in their designs and are the client’s advocates. You can find one for less than 20%.

    4. Squaredrive,

      I’m not sure if I get your question entirely, but here goes…

      When the job enters construction, it is little different than a traditional method. Any changes need to be approved by the owner before any related work is performed. Change orders are signed by the owner and the contractor.

      In addition, having someone from my office heavily involved in the construction progress, on the site daily or at least every couple of days (as opposed to the typical bi-weekly architect’s site visit) keeps me very aware of the day-to-day activities and provides me with a lot of advance notice, and therefore the ability to deal with issues ass soon as they arise, so these kind of changes tend to be few.

      And you’re right, many, in fact most, owners stay very involved in the construction process, visiting the site weekly, if not daily. Those that choose not to, I keep up to date with emails, pictures, etc.

      Jim Hill, RA, LEED AP
      Urban Pioneering Architecture

    5. Jim, if you are still reading this:

      Your strategy for the design/bid process makes a lot of sense in that it sets up checks and balances on your bid. However, if you are chosen for the construction, how is the client safe-guarded against your construction team making changes? I mean, many owners oversee construction closely themselves, so maybe someone using this method just stays very involved, but how do you keep the clients informed and comfortable with the process? I’m curious because it seems like the biggest potential negative of this delivery method for the owner.

    6. I would suggest interviewing some contractors FIRST….they typically will have some practical ideas for Mechanics, Electric, Plumbing ect….They can give you ball park estimates so that you have an idea…if you find one that is enthusiastic and aggressive about wanting the job they will give you good advice. Then hire an architect. This way you can save some money on design work and phases ect….I am currently in this situation but further along. I am about to start work fully permitted…I wish I would have talked with my GC prior and along side the Architect…instead of spending a ton of time designing various ideas all of may or not work..only to have a GC’s bid on the designs where as they could have helped and cut your costs.

    7. That IS interesting… It would go a long way to legitimize the structure and provide a measure of regulation. Sounds like a good thing thing to me.

    8. One interesting thing to note is that the AIANYS is lobbying up in Albany for design-build to be allowed.

    9. This is a very interesting debate. Even as an architect and practitioner of “design/build” I agree that there is the potential for cost fixing or cutting corners. However, there are definitely economies derived from the system. Personally, we guarantee that our prices will be lowest among equally qualified bidders.

      How do we do that? The client always has the right to bid out the project to several bidders. I assist the owner in this by providing all bidders with drawings and specs, walking them through the project (literally – on site), and coordinating all bids in a line-by-line comparison on a standardized, itemized bid form, which allows us to see which items are out of line with the other bidders, pointing out possible misunderstandings or different assumptions that arise any time you bid a project. The we investigate each bid in light of the spreadsheet, contact the bidders and make sure we’re comparing apples to apples.

      The when that’s all done, we present the spreadsheet to the client, including my contractor’s numbers and we see if we’re the lowest. If we are, then great. If not, then I am free to continue the project with the contractor of the owner’s choosing in a standard owner-architect-contractor relationship.

      This is in specific response to those concerns, and provides the best of both worlds for our clients.

      Jim Hill, RA, LEED AP
      Urban Pioneering Architecture

    10. We are just going through a similar process and will be using an architect for some of the reasons noted. Given the amount of money we are spending we want someone who knows the business inside out keeping an eye on things and we’re ok paying a moderate premium for this. When you’re spending 3 or 400 grand 10-12% for us was not a deciding factor.

      We’ve never been through a renovation previously and already have hundreds of questions / ideas for the design. In our opinion this is best handled by someone who works in tandem with you and has many years experience dealing with such issues.

      Very much a personal choice, but this was ours.

    11. Two of my clients are working with architect/expediters they found on their own. There seems to be a growing trend of clients wanting to cut out the middle-man.

      Historically a design builder is not a contractor/architect team but a builder who knows how to design. I read about it in “Fine Homebuilding” at least fourteen years ago and decided it was the smartest approach to contracting I’d come across.

      You might want to take a look at hiring an architect/expediter to draw up the 2D schematics necessary for DOB permitting. For full rewiring, plumbing and mechanical as well as interior alterations, the DOB is satisfied with only about 5 pages of schematics. From there you could interview design/builders, who could bid on the schematics and include a design fee in their bid. I usually include about 8 to 40 hours of design at a flat fee of around $400 to $2000 depending on the size of the project. Those are mostly 3D and/or shop drawings (full details).

      If you are interested in contacting one of the architect/expediters (neither of whom I have any monetary or contractual relationship with), please email me:

      masterbuildernyc@gmail.com

    12. Design/Build v. Architect
      As the owner and operator of a design build firm I have spent enormous time and energy thinking about the building process and the inherent problems which seem to be recurring themes when ever I ask my obligatory question; ”have you been through the renovation process and if so what were the negatives of the experience”. I’ve heard all the nightmare stories. I insist on conducting business not by the erroneous industry standards but in a way which has considered the vulnerability of the client and the contractor.
      When entering into a design build contract my firm will first present the design development contract which includes a general construction budget, once the design is complete and only then can an accurate construction contract be drafted as a final finish schedule and floor plan are available. Should my client be encouraged to proceed with my firm to complete the construction portion of their project a large percentage of the design development cost will be applied to the construction fee. However my clients are free to take the plan and competitively bid or hire whom ever they choose to complete the renovation. Everybody’s safe everybody’s protected. Honestly how can a number be placed on a construction project which hasn’t been designed yet?
      Good luck and to hear more of the unique business practices I employ in order to combat the inherent problems with the process feel free to contact me directly,
      Paul Barnla

    13. New York State does not allow Design/Build. Contracts are requried to be separate. New Jersy does allow it. Every state has their own rules that we are required to follow. The general idea is that if the architect is being paid by the contractor than who’s side is he really on? All architects have contractors they like to work with, but the contracts are separtate between the owner and each entity.

    14. jock,

      im interested in this issue of illegality. most of the curtain walls in new york city are designed and fabricated by a single entity. The aia advocates two seperate entities and two seperate contracts in the “design/build” process as far as i know. Whats the deal in NY?

      – Josh

    15. I have to say, I wouldn’t be without my architect for nuthin’. He has saved me a bundle so far, not to mention bringing his expertise to bear in negotiating the various bids from engineers, contractors, and solar companies. The money I have saved so far on these bids alone has more than covered his fee. I also have the benefit of his company’s advice on selecting tile, cabinets, doors, door knobs, lighting, faucets — you name it. The number of decisions to be made in the course of a substantial renovation is huge, and it helps to have someone who has a pretty good idea of your taste, knows the products, and keeps the budget in mind. My architect will also be there throughout the reno, making sure that things are done right. And his fee is nowhere near 20%. I suggest you interview a few architects first and find one who “gets you,” and take it from there.

    16. Lots of good advice here. One comment about your statement, “I would rather see my money go into the pockets of the laborers who are working their asses off…” It’s an admirable sentiment but the money that would have gone to the Architect isn’t going to land in the laborer’s pockets. It’s going to go to the in-house design team and to cover the added administrative cost of the design-build model. So make sure you are weighing the correct variables.

      Pro Design-Build: You can lock into a price much earlier in the process, and it can work favorably relative to schedule – you don’t have to wait for the design to be 100% complete to bid then start construction. Can be cost effective because the process is streamlined.

      Con:

      1. You don’t have an independent advocate (Architect) overseeing the contractor’s work. How will you guard against the builder cutting corners? I would ask this question to any design/build firm – how do they maintain quality and transparency in their work?

      2. You lose the potential cost savings of a bid process.

      Good luck!

    17. 20% is very high for a substantial typical job so don’t expect you are really going to save that much. An architect is still going to get paid to design and stamp your job. And without competitive bidding how will you know what you save?
      But design/build can be a very good and efficient method IF you have an ethical builder. Just remember unless you are very well versed in construction you will be at their mercy and may need someone paid by you to protect your interests

    18. I’m an architect and I operate very closely with one contractor for almost all of my jobs. As Jock mentioned, in NY it’s not legal for an architect and a contractor to “engage in profit sharing” because an architect’s license is regulated by the state dept of education, whereas a contractor’s license is not. The limitation is not specific to architects and contractors, it applies to all licensed professionals and non because non-professionals (contractors) cannot be compensated for offering professional services (architectural services).

      With that said, we basically work as a design-build team and advertise ourselves that way. Contracts for our services are typically handled separately but arrived at through collaboration.

      As a design-build partnership, we approach every project together – architect, contractor, and project manager. Together, we have enough experience to create a proposal that includes everything from design through construction, all the way to DOB close-out and C of O where necessary. This becomes our working budget, and we stick to it. Unless the owner decides to make changes after the proposal is provided, we finish the job according to the numbers therein.

      Our design-build method means that each job gets a project manager who visits the job at the very beginning when we first write the proposal, also works on the development of the design and does all of the construction drawings. When the job goes to construction, the PM is on site almost every day, providing in depth supervision and being the liason between the office, the job site, the GC and the owner.

      This approach ensures project continuity throughout the life of the project. It allows us to control costs from the very beginning, even building into the system efficiencies lost in the traditional architect – contractor relationship. The fact that the same person is drawings the details and helping build them in the field means that no information is lost in translation from office to field, eliminating errors and streamlining the construction documentation process. This creates opportunities for savings which we pass directly on to the owner.

      The end result is a consistently well designed, well constructed, cost effective project. To compare with previous posts, the architectural fees are generally 8%-12% of the project, depending upon the magnitude of the project as well as the level of detail and customization.

      Thank you,

      Jim Hill, RA, LEED AP
      Urban Pioneering Architecture
      (646) 309-7259

    19. As an architect, I’m just going to throw out there that I think 20% of the construction cost is really high. There are architects out there who will work for less.

    20. I second what BHS said. I just went through a fairly large reno and was not happy about paying an architect in the beginning. We used a contractor recommended by the architect who gave us a price that was a third less that the other bids which more than covered his fee. Additionally, having him there through the job was enormous incentive for the GC to be cooperative in order to get more recs from the architect. If you are in a situation where the architect is partnering with the GC, the independent evaluation is lost. Additionally, what do you do if you want to fire the GC? You could be stuck.

      You really can’t get an worthwhile bid unless you know specifically what the job will entail in a very detailed way. You can’t know this before the design is worked out.

    21. I’m certainly interested to hear people’s reactions/experiences.

      From an architect’s point of view I would offer a few scattered thoughts – you probably aren’t going to get a ‘hot pencil’ architect working design build, but they are probably technically proficient and as long as you’re not looking for ground breaking design you will be fine. Alternatively, there are some architects out there who couldn’t find GC’s to built their crazy ideas so they started their own construction firms, so that there would be no one would tell them ‘no.’

      I think as long are you are working with good people, who you trust and come with solid recommendations (go see their past work with the designer and someone from the construction team) – watch how they talk about their collaborative process, ask what their worst disagreement was about, what the biggest challenge was, and the biggest surprise of the job and I think you’ll get a good sense of what it will be like to work with them.

      Last, in the end, the designer still has a salary, the GC is still buying materials and supplying labor so what you may save is on the designer’s overhead since it’s shared with the GC, but you’ve lost your ‘checks and balances’ on quality and pricing.

      Drew Stuart
      Incorporated Architecture & Design
      http://www.incorporatedny.com

    22. First off design build is not allowed by law in New York State. Second, you are locked in with the contractor. The architect should not be provided by the contractor. If you want to talk with someone with a different take on getting the project done, give me a call.

      Jock deBoer, AIA
      deBoer Architects
      718-354-7926

    23. some potential negatives are 1. you dont get to bid out the job, which is huge. In effect you need to do this when choosing the firm in the first place. you MUST get multiple bids. 2. a big part of the value of the architect is having them as an independent consultant working for you as your advocate and weighing in on any concerns or issues that come up with the GC. You lost this value with the combo model. An architect should be much more than plans. There are usually times when there’s some dilemma and you’ll want to get a second opinion on the GCs suggested course of action.